Just over four years ago my world, and that of my family, literally fell apart. It was a day like any other when two very sensitive police officers had the awful job of telling my wife and I that our son Barney had taken his own life. He was just 21-years-old.
Barney was the third of four boys. He was a lovely lad, a little shy but normal and well-liked. Whilst our other sons coped with the slings and arrows of growing up, Barney was just not equipped to deal with the storms of life. After a period of depression, he planned an organised but untimely exit from this world.
As you can imagine there has been much soul searching and many tears since then. Waves of grief still roll in from time to time, some crashing over us so hard they leave us gasping for breath. There isn't a day that goes by that a memory is not stirred, a wistful thought provoked by a smell or a song or a photograph. But we are OK; we have survived and, perhaps oddly, we are able to enjoy life again.
For me, that restorative process has been directly linked to my search for knowledge about the emotional wellbeing of young people. After more than 30 years in teaching, Barney's death led me down a new career path. I qualified as a Youth Mental Health First Aid Instructor in 2012 and become a trainer for schools and young people for the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust (CWMT) in 2013, a charity which provides free mental health training for the education and health care sector.
And with the knowledge I have gained has come some understanding. Not about how Barney's story may have had a less tragic ending, but about the epidemic of emotional turmoil that can threaten to engulf some young people. About the efforts of some to make a difference. About the apparent lethargy of others in positions to make a difference but who fail to do so.
Young people are under more pressure than ever before - social media and the drive to achieve academic success are two good examples of that. Equally schools are under pressure to meet National Curriculum targets and achieve good exam results. But studies have shown that if schools put the mental wellbeing of their pupils first, good academic results would follow. And that needs to start at primary schools where 10% of children have a mental health problem.
A recent survey of nearly 1500 primary school heads found that two thirds of them feel they cannot deal with mental health issues amongst their pupils. CWMT has seen a sharp rise in requests for training and resources from schools, including primaries, in recent years. In particular, we are asked for advice on low mood, anxiety, and the link this has with social media, body image, self-esteem, self-harm and problematic eating behaviours.
So what can we do to put mental and emotional wellbeing at the heart of what we teach children and young people?
The starting point is to embed mental wellbeing in all schools and universities, across teaching in all subjects - not as a separate lesson taught once a week. Importantly, we need to implement this at a primary school level where issues first start to emerge.
Secondly we need to ensure that teaching staff receive training and specialist support to enable them to recognise the early signs of distress amongst their pupils, to have the skills and confidence to offer support and practical coping strategies. They also need to be able to refer a young person for additional support from school-based or local services when this is needed.
And thirdly we need to better prepare our children and young people to be resilient enough to cope. As HRH the Duchess of Cambridge recently said we cannot always change children's circumstances, but we can teach them the skills to cope with the difficulties life throws at them. We can also help them develop the knowledge and understanding to navigate these waters more safely and seek appropriate help for themselves or a friend when things are going less well.
Schools, parents and young people themselves all have an important role to play in promoting mental wellbeing and tackling the stigma of mental ill-health. And the more we can intervene at a younger age, and the more we can make mental wellbeing 'mainstream' in schools, the more we can help the next generation of Barneys to cope better with the storms of life.
The Charlie Waller Memorial Trust provides free training for schools and universities as well talks for children and young people.
Young Minds Matter is a new series designed to lead the conversation with children about mental and emotional health, so youngsters feel loved, valued and understood. Launched with Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cambridge, as guest editor, we will discuss problems, causes and most importantly solutions to the stigma surrounding the UK's mental health crisis among children. To read more blog posts on the issue, click here: http://projects.huffingtonpost.co.uk/young-minds-matter/ To blog on the site as part of Young Minds Matter email firstname.lastname@example.org
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